BY RAHUL BALI Follow @rahulatma on twitter
While Afghanistan made history by winning their first ever international competition last week, an Indian, for the last two years or so, has played an important role in the development of the nation on the football front. Dr. Shaji Prabhakaran, FIFA’s Development Officer for Central and South Asia, highlights the importance of the Lions of Khorasan triumphing at the SAFF Championship and shares his thoughts on the progress they have made.
GOAL: What impact would the SAFF Championship triumph have on the nation?
SP: Afghanistan winning SAFF Championship is one of the biggest sporting achievements in the history of Afghanistan sports. Though they have an Olympic individual medal (Bronze in Taekwondo) to their credit in 2008 and 2012 editions, but this historic triumph in Kathmandu will have a great positive impact not only in the overall football development scenario but also helps in uniting the country and promoting peace.
Ever since you took over the position of a FIFA development officer, what are the noticeable changes that you have seen given the fact that they are the highest ranked nation in south Asia?
I feel very privileged to be associated with development of football in Afghanistan for last two years and there been a significant development work undertaken by Afghanistan Football Federation (AFF) in all aspects of football. The leaders at Afghanistan Federation are working very hard to take beautiful game to every corner of the country and there been a great success so far. In precise terms, the AFF has created many opportunities for players and communities to get involved in football through different development programmes, events and competitions in spite of all constraints.
Not to forget that Afghanistan team is one of the consistent teams in South Asian region for last two years and winning SAFF Championship only proved their consistency after qualifying for the AFC Challenge Cup this year for the very first time.
Which are the areas that they need to improve upon with regards to the league, infrastructure, etc?
The AFF is working on to finalise its long term development plan and by the year end identify its key priorities to focus on for next few years to further strengthen all aspects of football in the country. It is important to understand that winning SAFF Championship has only raised the expectation levels of Afghan fans and the next challenge for the team is to perform better in next year's AFC Challenge Cup 2014 in Maldives.
What role has FIFA played in the last 8 years towards developing Afghanistan football?
FIFA has rolled out all its major development projects and programmes in Afghanistan and very soon the AFF headquarters project will be ready. The AFF is also focussing in developing its futsal, beach soccer and women’s football, and in all these areas AFF will benefit from FIFA. Through FIFA's football management programme, AFF will have the opportunity to adopt a professional structure in all areas of football. Grassroots is another area where AFF is having discussion with FIFA to roll out a structured programme. FIFA's Artificial Turf Project in AFF Complex at Kabul was their first project and that's where AFF conducts its majority of activities, be it league matches, grassroots events, women’s football, courses, etc. I think this project has played a key role to kick start the football development in Afghanistan and it’s great to see the successful journey of Afghan football since the start of this project.
Afghanistan are the highest ranked nation in South Asia
How cooperative is the local government in promoting football amongst the youngsters?
I think this victory in Nepal will motivate the local government to increase its support towards football. In most of the provinces, the Afghan government is building stadiums and eight of those are under construction across the nation. The celebrations, joy, happiness and togetherness visible today across Afghanistan after the success of team in SAFF Championship is the best example what football can do to the society. The AFF would require support from the government to fully implement its development programmes and achieve its vision. Moreover, it is important to note here that today a significant number of youth are focussing their energy on football and with government's support; the world’s most popular game can become the best medium of engagement for their large youth population. For example, in Kabul alone there are 400 futsal teams and their energy and enthusiasm towards football is to be seen to be believed.
How popular is football among other sports in the region?
Football is by far the most popular sport among most Afghans and its popularity is pan-Afghan. The success of Afghan Premier League and its television viewership is the best example to judge the football popularity in the country. This fact will surprise many that the Afghan league’s revenue is the highest among South Asian countries and that again indicates popularity of the world's most popular sport. I have myself been fortunate to experience popularity of football during my few visits to Afghanistan and I am confident that it will only grow there. The credit goes to Afghanistan Football Federation and its leadership for making football very popular through their hard work, passion and great commitment.
Is football being viewed a process to bring together people, in other words a form of community development?
There is no doubt about it, this is what visible in the streets across the nation after the victory in Nepal.
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